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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

“Mao: A Life”, by Philip Short

798 pages, Henry Holt and Co., ISBN-13: 978-0805031157

Choosing from this list of dictators, who was the most evil: Adolf Hitler, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, or Mao Tse-tung? For those in the West, Hitler would take the top spot, while Stalin would be second but, amongst our academic literati, with reservations (sure he murdered millions upon millions of his own people, but he was trying to create a better world, damnit!) But what many of these self-same smart people would declare is that, for all his faults, Mao is the least deserving to be on this list, for while his “achievements” are relatively well-known, his many MANY crimes are not and, thus, it is easier to make the case that he was, in the end, just a great big cuddly butterball…absolute dictator.

Philip Short is a British journalist and author who, while not strictly a historian, has spent a lot of time in China, and his take on Mao – like his later take on Pol Pot – is unique because of it. In Short’s telling Mao was a canny backwoods operator whose sentiments held sway over his intellect and, subsequently, who fell badly out of touch with reality once his power became so great that his advisors were no longer able to reel in his fancies. For all that, Mao (and Pol) didn’t seem to have really meant anybody any harm; rather, it was the religious-like devotion to doctrine (and a childishness of mind that grew out of a complacent over-reliance on doctrine) that made him the architect of the most fatal period of misrule that China has ever seen: once he got an idea in his head – on generalship, politics, law or agriculture – he simply couldn’t be persuaded to let it go (this is, to say the least, a rather forgiving analysis of a man who is responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 49 to 78 million people). Upon seizing power, Short recounts, Mao carried on the struggle as though the fronts had merely shifted, beginning a campaign to resolutely eliminate bandits, spies, bullies, and despots (which eventually claimed more than 700,000 lives) and becoming embroiled, for ideological reasons, in the Korean War (which claimed 148,000 more). Short argues that the important distinction that needs to be made between Mao and the other dictators is that the overwhelming majority of deaths under his rule were the unintended consequence of policies, not the deliberate genocide of a class of people (like the Jews or the Kulaks). Mao’s cavalier attitude towards deaths on a massive scale is acknowledged as, to him, a million deaths was merely a part of the dialectics of revolution. In this sense he was indeed a monster.

When the time came to focus on domestic policy and economic development, he developed increasingly unrealistic ambitions and an increasingly forcible style of carrying them out, culminating in the “Great Leap Forward”, the massively botched scheme that was intended to transform China overnight from a struggling peasant economy into a powerhouse of technology and production. The plan was based on ideological principles rather than practical ones, but at that point Mao was beginning to find it hard to distinguish between the two. Short quotes a 1958 speech: “When we study a problem, we must subdue the facts … The relationship between politics and numbers is like that between officers and soldiers: Politics is the commander.” History would record the results, and Short’s biography shows Mao, after having been scorched badly by the refusal of facts and numbers to kowtow to his notions of ideology, crossing over into a condition indistinguishable from paranoid dementia. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, in the mid-60s, that chubby, smiling face on the posters belonged to a disheveled, peevish man lounging in bed all day amid a pile of books as he systematically plotted to take out everyone in China who might disagree even inwardly with his notions of Mao Thought.

This book is a good look at one of the most vile men in the world. Mao was the consummate manipulator of other humans who did more to hurt the Chinese people than any of the ancient rulers, and I doubt that we will ever know the cost in human lives that this man caused.

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